Sweet and Sour Dreams

By John Barlow,
author of the novel "Intoxicated"
Monday, April 10, 2006


A Family Story

By Rich Cohen

Farrar Straus Giroux. 272 pp. $25

If you're sitting in a diner as you read this review, the subject of Rich Cohen's fascinating "Sweet and Low" is probably in a bowl right beside your coffee cup. Those distinctive pink packets of no-cal sweetener have been in cafes and restaurants for more than 60 years, making an awful lot of money for the family that invented them. This is the story of who got the money, and who didn't.

Benjamin Eisenstadt was born in 1906 on New York's Lower East Side. After losing both parents early, he somehow managed to get himself an education and founded Cumberland Packing, the Brooklyn company that still produces those little sachets of artificial sugar. Rich Cohen is his grandson and the author of several acclaimed books on American Jewish history. In telling the story of the family company, he also leads us through the Jewish business community of pre- and postwar Brooklyn, depicting it as a "cradle of a new culture" where new dreams were incubated, dreams fueled by a search for freedom and its expression: "freedom from history, freedom from exclusion."

It is a wildly addictive, high-octane narrative. Cohen sashays with boisterous panache from the history of the sugar trade to grandmother Betty's brooch ("a gold tarantula with ruby eyes pinned just below her shoulder"), a highly personal history in which the most intimate family details are seen in the context of the Sweet'N Low empire. Thus are we introduced to Aunt Gladys, housebound with psoriasis but constantly on the phone ("a blood-swelled part of the anatomy"), exerting what Cohen sees as her cold, malign influence over the company. Gladys takes no formal part in the running of the company, but she is as important in this American history as the money, the marketing, the political kickbacks and the mob.

In later years the sweet dream is soured, first by problems with the FDA, then through internal corruption. We get all this with scrupulous clarity. Yet it leads up to something more important: the inevitable crumbling of empire, precipitated by the death of Ben Eisenstadt. There followed a battle for control of Cumberland, and of course, for the money. During this period the author's side of the family was disinherited. "I am Napoleon staring at Paris from Corsica," he says. "All they have left me is this story. To be disinherited is to be set free."

He uses this freedom to take swipes at older relatives, the very people who might have slapped his legs to scold him just a handful of years ago. To Uncle "Marvelous" Marvin's claim that he chose pink for the famous Sweet'N Low sachet because "blue does not occur in nature," his nephew's response is short and to the point: "(1) blueberries; and (2) sky." Take that, Uncle Dorkus.

Cohen moves from journalistic objectivity to the intensely personal with ease, enjoying the kind of access that historians almost never get. He is even granted an audience with Aunt Gladys. And because little Rich Cohen has become a savvy Manhattan writer, he knows how to use the material. We see the results most clearly in his treatment of Marvin, first son of the patriarch and now head of the company. Marvin was indicted for tax fraud as part of an investigation into the company's finances, and Rich conducts the interview with him in full knowledge that his uncle will come out badly in the book. Indeed, from the first page to the last, Marvin Eisenstadt is portrayed as weak and rudderless. Despite this, one almost feels as if Cohen is covering for his uncle, that the journalist nephew can't quite bring himself to tell the whole truth. In the end, the family gets in the way.

This, perhaps, contributes to the sadness that washes over the final chapters. The tone slows, and Cohen recognizes that he has told the story of how families fracture and grow apart. For the first time you feel that he wants his family back, in one piece; he regrets having revealed so much, that it has fallen to him to poke around in the basement and discover that there are remnants of the bad and the unworthy in all families, in all times.

So what made Rich Cohen write this book? His mother, daughter of the patriarch, was cruelly disinherited in the aftermath of the great man's death. Is it, then, about the money? Is Rich Cohen, the grandson who got squat from the Sweet'N Low millions, taking revenge? No; this book is about his mother, and the way that her family -- the whole saccharine-sticky lot of them -- were truly and unnaturally awful to her, a woman who makes but brief appearances in the narrative and is never eulogized. A woman who could have survived her vile relatives only through a tremendous inner strength. It is this strength which, subtly, gloriously, Rich Cohen celebrates.

Patrick Anderson's reviews will resume next Monday.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company